Breathlessness and PAH

Cate’s story

When she started experiencing new and unusual symptoms, Cate (pictured with her grandchildren), who was in her early 20s, knew something wasn’t right.

“I was previously very fit and just could not extend myself. I could not get the breath I needed. My friend and I went out exercising – she was walking with the pram and the plan was I would run. She beat me because I had to keep stopping to catch my breath.”

On average a diagnosis of Pulmonary Hypertension can take almost 4 years. Fortunately for Cate, when she raised her symptoms with a GP, she was quickly sent for tests and the diagnosis was confirmed. Many Australians tend to ignore the signs and symptoms of lung disease, mistaking them for a lack of fitness or a sign they’re getting older. If you’re experiencing new, persistent or changed symptoms – like breathlessness or fatigue – it’s important to speak with a doctor. There are simple and non-invasive tests that can help understand what might be causing your symptoms.

What is making me breathless?

Breathlessness, or shortness of breath, can be a frightening sensation. Whether you experience it randomly, regularly or it becomes more severe during certain times, you’re probably asking yourself ‘what causes shortness of breath?’. There can be lots of factors that make you feel breathless like exercise or physical exertion, the quality of the air you’re breathing, or perhaps even the presence of someone you admire. But, breathless, or shortness of breath, can mean something more serious.

Unexplained breathlessness can be a sign of a serious lung disease like Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (PAH). PAH can affect anyone at any age. It’s a rare disease that affects the way the heart and lungs work. It causes narrowing or blocking of the blood vessels that carry blood from the heart to the lungs, slowing down the flow of blood. This means your heart has to work overtime which can eventually cause heart failure. Shortness of breath can be one of the first signs of PAH.

Other symptoms can include:


Fast or irregular heartbeat


Swelling in the legs or stomach

Lips and fingers turning blue or purple

Should I get my breathlessness checked?

Many people tend to ignore the early signs and symptoms of lung disease, like PAH. Often people will put them down to a lack of fitness or a sign they’re getting older. Early diagnosis can save lives.

If you’re experiencing any new, persistent or changed symptoms like breathlessness or fatigue, you should speak with your GP. PAH gets worse over time. Diagnosis is delayed on overage 3.9 years and on average it takes 5 GP visits before a specialist referral is given for PAH. Knowing the early warning signs can help you get a diagnosis and receive treatment before the disease becomes serious or even life-threatening.

If you are diagnosed with a lung condition, or know someone who is, Lung Foundation Australia is here to help. Our Information and Support Centre team can connect with resource, services and programs to help you or your loved one live well. Find out more, here.

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